Pic: David Loveday
HILLARY CLINTON once stayed in the Tallinn hotel England C called home for three days – but, unlike the defeated US presidential candidate, Paul Fairclough’s Three Lions were victorious with a Whitehouse and Non-League’s latest Top Trump.
Elliott Whitehouse opened the scoring in a madcap six first-half minutes where Estonia equalised and then fell behind again almost immediately when hot prospect Jamal Lowe, the Hampton & Richmond striker who has bagged a big move to League Two side Portsmouth in January, poked in.
It means England finish second in their International Challenge Trophy group with four points from three games and have the chance to get their own back on Slovakia in the final.
Boss Fairclough has been smarting since the Slovakians hit a 97th-minute winner in a see-saw 4-3 thriller held at Sutton United back in June – three months after an impressive 2-0 win in Ukraine.
They lost the right to host the showdown that summer day but knew a win against Estonia would book up a reunion. In fact, a draw would have been enough. Perhaps it’s telling that settling for a point was never mentioned.
But to set the scene for a performance packed with spirit and desire, we need to hit rewind. Fairclough picked his 16-man squad last month ahead of a training camp at Warwick University.
Of that initial selection, just seven players boarded the flight out of Heathrow on Sunday morning. A combination of FA Cup replays, plus two late injuries to Lincoln City duo Sam Habergham and Sean Raggett, meant Fairclough had to shuffle his pack.
In came the already capped Kingsley James, Jack Holland and keeper Brandon Hall, while Lowe – who was at Warwick – Bromley’s Blair Turgott, Forest Green striker Kieffer Moore, Aldershot’s Cheye Alexander, Woking defender Jake Caprice and AFC Telford goalie James Montgomery earned their first call-ups.
Fairclough has a favourite phrase: Even If. It’s a mental exercise he runs through with the team before matches where the players come up with problems that might occur in the game.
Can they concede a bad goal and still win? Even if. He also told his players the story of actor Sylvester Stallone. How he was skint and owned little more than a movie script no one wanted.
Eventually he persuaded someone to take a shot on it, only to then demand he play the lead role. England C would need to show that Rocky spirit to overcome an Estonian side – who needed three points to reach the final themselves – that boasted nine full internationals.
They came out swinging by taking an approach to the game Fairclough described as “shock and awe”. After just seven minutes they were ahead.
The ball came to AFC Fylde’s exciting playmaker James Hardy. He feinted and twisted with his back to goal, before turning and clipping a perfect cross for Lincoln City’s Whitehouse to power in with his head.
The lead lasted just three minutes. Maksim Gussev broke into the box and fired at Hall from close range. The ball came out to Martin Miller, his shot was well saved by Hall but there was nothing the Woking keeper could do to keep out Pavel Domov’s follow-up.
Even If. Within three minutes England were ahead with Hardy the architect once again. The debutant’s pass split the Estonian back four for Lowe to lift over the onrushing Marko Meerits.
At times in the first-half England played themselves into trouble and Andreas Raudsepp went very close to leveling for a second time.
But in the second-half the visitors were able to turn in a hugely commendable disciplined performance. The midfield three of captain Alex Woodyard, Jake Gallagher and Macclesfield’s James worked themselves into the ground.
The back four of Nick Arnold, Holland, Dan Wishart and the impressive Ethan Pinnock barely allowed the Estonians in. When a cross did find substitute Rauno Sappinen, the midfielder with two full caps headed over when well placed.
But, despite digging in and manning the barricades, England still had their chances. Lowe dragged a shot wide in the box and Holland looked certain to be celebrating his second international goal in two games, only for Meerits to someone get down and keep his stabbed effort out.
Fairclough introduced the pace of Turgott and Alexander from the bench, while big striker Moore came for the final minutes and held the ball up well.
The final act of the game was for Hall to make a smart stop at his near post to preserve the win England deserved. These Non-League stars earned their stripes.